Tomas and some others asked me, “Are you afraid of death?”
The opening of my response (last week’s post, the one below this one): “Some yes.”
This week: “Most no”
What does that mean, “Most no?”
Bear with me, please, because I’m thinking on paper here. I think what “Most no” means is that I’m probably not afraid of what most people are afraid of when we think of death. At least in Western societies, most people are afraid of hell, or at least of punishment. That is what at least 1,700 years of theology have led to.
The conventional hell
Now, I am not about to detail that whole situation in a single blog post. I have already posted about it and written a long article, “Untangling Hellish Visions,” to which I refer you. It is under Articles at this website. I’m also working on a shorter version that you can more easily tuck into your mind and carry with you. Look for it a few days after this is posted.
The bottom line is that hell has not always looked the way it does in the common imagination today; Augustine/Dante’s Inferno hell is not a fact of the universe. Further, for anyone thinking there is some religious imperative to that hell, there is nothing biblical about it, though it came to be the predominant Christian view, the one still giving people horrors and creeps. (There have always been minority views, but the Augustine/ Dante hell won the politico-religious/special effects contest.)
What is the character of your God?
So let me just say that what this means is that there is no evidence, other than legend and some overwrought theology, of a place in the universe where people who have behaved wickedly or who believe the wrong things about God will be thrown into eternal, unending, forever physical torment without recourse. Nada.
Returning readers will know I say this as a practicing, in-church-every-Sunday Christian—though not a traditional one. But this hell business matters even for non-religious people because Western culture has developed over two thousand years around the Judeo-Christian tradition and has embedded those images and concepts into its psyche. Our cultural world is absolutely saturated, from sermons to video games, with the notion of looming hell put forward by Augustine (4th century) and Dante’s Inferno (14th century). Other than atheists thinking heaven/hell must indicate psychosis, and skeptics certain of oblivion, we have no broadly accepted alternative to what happens after death than heaven/hell. So what are we to think?
If not hell, what?
If there is no hell, what are distressing NDEs? What is their point, if not a warning? Here is where my thinking may seem to take some odd turns, but stick with me. I pretty much know where I’m going, though not how to get there in a straight line.
It was New Testament scholar and former Catholic priest John Dominic Crossan who asked what has been for me a central question: “What is the character of your god?”
My god. Your god. Religious or secular, you have one, even if it’s golf or American Idol or Fox News or your Constitutional right to own an automatic weapon. Or Doctors Without Borders, or hospice, or teaching third grade. You have one. Maybe it’s even God. The point is, whatever I believe about the character of whatever I take as my god shapes my life. Yours shapes you, too.
Last week, I had lunch in rural North Carolina, down in fundamentalist country, in a little backroad country grill with a great cook, in a seedy, half-stocked convenience store with a big-screen TV blaring a sci-fi horror flick on AMC. It was all conflict—screaming, grunting, the crashings of guys bursting down a door, each arm occupied by a blasting automatic weapon. Lots of automatic weapons, lots of blasting. Exploding. Screaming. It was like that the whole time. I couldn’t help wondering what it must do to that cook, to be submerged in that all day, every day. Even if she pays no attention, it’s in the air. What is the character of that god? Little kids go in there. What do they think about how the world works?
Right now, the god of the entire world looks very much like fear, even terror. And the character of fear is that it’s suspicious. Everyone is feeling threatened by something, or by everything; it’s become a madness. Gun shops thrive. Conspiracies and threats everywhere, spying and secrets. Differences are scary, children are being tried as adult criminals, the US has more and more people in prison per square inch of the population, young girls are kidnapped by the hundreds because they are being taught to think things their captors don’t want to know about. We want someone to come in and kick butt. (A yearning for Messiah is nothing new.)
We see the fear all around, the hyper-vigilant watch of suspicion that Someone is coming to take our choices, our property, our minds, our children, our rightness, our rights, even including our right to be armed against any person who comes to our door, anyone who crosses us or looks at us funny. The Inferno version of hell tells us that our justice is God’s justice, tells us we’re okay as long as we think the same way, as long as we’re inside the right lines. The character of this god is that he’d fit right into that diner movie, because he is just itching to blast all the bad guys, the unbelievers and misfits, into a hideous hell that lasts forever—keepin’ the rest of us safe, baby.
This is god in violation of the Geneva Conventions and Jesus’ teachings, yet countless people uphold this interpretation.
The thing is, for all my objection to and disbelief in the Augustine/Dante hell and its depiction of the character of God, I don’t think rejecting it gets us off scot-free. I am quite certain (though without proof) that with or without physical lakes of fire and a pitiless deity, there are consequences to our choices.
One of my favorite people is Bernie Siegel, MD, the cancer surgeon and best-selling author of Love, Medicine, and Miracles. We were the speakers at a weekend workshop once. He was the rock star, and I was the opener; but after hearing my first talk, he began his by saying, “Nancy and I give the same speech; we just use different words.” (I’m sure it’s a stock line, but it was a great boost. Gotta love that!)
So of course he speaks my language. In one of his online articles, Bernie makes a point much like Crossan’s, just using different words. He says to God,
“Thanks, now I see I am to imitate God and use You for a role model…Oh, I’m to act like a Satellite dish, remote control and TV screen. I get it. I am to choose the channel I tune into and use my mind like a remote to select the proper channel, which is broadcasting your message, and use my body to demonstrate it like a TV screen reveals the program.”
What is the character of the channel, of the program we choose to shape us? Does it make a difference in what happens at the end of our earth stay? I have no more information than you, but it seems to me it should make some difference. It’s a matter of the culture we inhabit, and where that can take us.
Another key quote for me is Einstein’s observation to the effect that the most important question humanity can ask is, “Is the universe friendly?”
Ah. We would like to know.
There is reason to believe so. We have oxygen. And water. The Intelligent Design folks have a whole lot of cosmological data showing that Earth is perfectly designed for such as we. Foodstuffs grow, and blood clots.
But then there are tornadoes, volcanoes, earthquakes, viruses and bacteria, spiders with toxic bites, and some savagely cruel insects, and cancer and ALS. And babies born with no brains, or with painful fatal conditions. (Wouldn’t painful or fatal be enough?) And, of course, there are distressing NDEs. Friendly?
The wishfully-thought God who is all love and no discipline or shadow has nothing to say to this.
In my thinking, the universe is perhaps dispassionate rather than friendly. God, too, because Things Happen. They just do, and we can rail against that or accept it. But then there’s this: that although there are reasons to disbelieve the medieval torture of hell, and although there are deeply distressing and sometimes even horrifying near-death experiences, the universe—or God—is friendly enough that it gave us Carl Jung.
According to Carl Gustav Jung, hell represents, among every culture, the disturbing aspect of the collective unconscious.
To be continued…
By now you may see the pattern that will answer the question.
There are some aspects of death, mostly instinctual, that continue to bother me.
However, I am not afraid of the conventional, medieval hell because I join with a good many theologians in dismissing it entirely as unworthy of the God in whom I believe.
My thinking has been and continues to be shaped by the character not only of that God, but by the people I meet and read, of whom I have just mentioned four. Jung is saved for the next post.
There are other influences and experiences affecting my thoughts about death, which we will get to next time, in what I expect will be the conclusion of this thread.